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Essential South Dakota

Courtesy South Dakota Department of Tourism

In the east, rivers, lakes and waterfalls cut a beautiful swath through immense prairies; in the west, the legendary Black Hills rise up from the plains, guardians of millennia of nature and culture. Wherever you go in South Dakota, you’ll find people and places that embody the quintessential American experience.

For church groups, South Dakota poses an array of great travel possibilities. From the iconic faces on Mount Rushmore to the classic vehicles at Pioneer Auto, there are plenty of one-of-a-kind sights to see on a tour through the state. Throw in a generations-old tradition of Native American history and art, along with healthy doses of Western heritage and the great outdoors, and you’ll create a classic South Dakota itinerary that will appeal to your entire tribe.

A group tour of South Dakota can easily last seven days or more. Here are five essential elements to include on your next trip to the state.

1) Famous faces
It’s an image that every American has seen dozens of times: the larger-than-life faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln carved onto a granite cliff, overlooking the beautiful expanses of rock and pine that blanket the Black Hills.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a must for any group visiting South Dakota. Carved by Gutzon Borglum beginning in 1927, the memorial took 14 years and $1 million to complete. In addition to the famous faces, which each stand around 60 feet tall, the memorial now features the grand Avenue of Flags, an outdoor corridor leading to the monument that features the flags of all 50 states. Groups can visit the on-site museum that tells the story of Mount Rushmore’s carving or take a short hike to the Sculptor’s Studio to see some of the tools and scale models that Borglum used during his work.

While you’re in the area, take your group on the scenic 17-mile drive to Crazy Horse Memorial. This ongoing project is the brainchild of area Native American leaders and the late artist Korczak Ziolkowski, who began work on the carving in 1947. Today, Ziolkowski’s wife and children continue the work, along with many other supporters. Although there is no scheduled date for completion, the finished sculpture will be 582 feet tall.

Groups that visit the memorial can see the face, arm and hand of Crazy Horse taking shape, and can take a bus tour to the foot of the mountain to see the work up close. The visitors center and the museum feature dozens of exhibits of artwork, crafts and other items that honor the area’s Native American heritage.

2) Roadside attractions

Along Interstate 90 and other highways throughout South Dakota, the great American tradition of roadside billboards advertise some of the state’s most unusual attractions. Wall Drug Store and the Pioneer Auto Show, two large establishments in tiny towns, heavily employ clever signage to draw visitors to their unique brands of Americana.

In the town of Wall, Wall Drug Store began using road signs to advertise “free ice water” during the Depression. The influx of travelers who stopped on their way out of the Badlands led the store to grow into the sprawling complex it is today. Groups could spend an entire afternoon browsing the bookstore, Western apparel and fine art galleries at Wall Drug. In the store’s “back yard,” a host of animatronic statues and Western-themed attractions provide lighthearted entertainment; the walls of the on-site restaurant are lined with a serious collection of Western art, including paintings by some of the genre’s most famous artists.

Further east in Murdo, the Pioneer Auto Show grew out of one man’s car dealership into a collection of 40 buildings and many hundreds of classic automobiles. Visitors will find classic autos from every era, among them a Model T Ford, a 1957 Chevy and muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s. The collection also includes several famous items, including a Harley-Davidson motorcycle that belonged to Elvis Presley and a “General Lee” car used in the television series “The Dukes of Hazard.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.